Typography in Kindle? Yes, we can

by | Jun 8, 2012

by David Bergsland (@DavidBergsland)

David, a self-published author, book designer and indie type designer last appeared on the blog in August, 2011 when he wrote Authors: Why You Should be Writing in Adobe InDesign. David has been working with the new Kindle Fire and KF8 software and I asked him to give us an idea of what this combination can do, and whether it’s going to change our ebooks for the better. Here’s his report.

One of the largest problems for both the reader and the book designer when dealing with Kindle books has been the extremely limited typography available in the original Kindles and the mobi format in general. It’s not too bad for novels, but for non-fiction and complex discussions of specific procedures it was painful.

This is one of the reasons that ePUB gained so much prominence. Of course, for book designers, even the ePUB is very limited. After all, both of these formats are basically simple, very long, single-column Web pages. Gag!

But the world of Web design was radically changed a few years back with Cascading Style Sheets [CSS]. With CSS careful coders could construct rules for formatting the copy within a Website. In book designer terminology, CSS is a set of paragraph and character styles which is attached to a Website (or Web page) to tell a browser how to format the copy on that site or page.

The good news is that coding is no longer required

For most of us, coding is beyond our interest or capabilities. Being forced to hand-code Kindle books has led to some horribly designed books. Now many people on this blog and elsewhere say that you can still not produce a professional Kindle book without getting into the code. Balderdash! The purpose of this article is to show you what you can do without coding.

Living as a code-challenged author in a code-driven world: Though it is true (at this point in the development of design software for the production of ebooks) that the direct editing of the underlying code of your Kindle book gives you options available in no other way, these options are rarely necessary.

Please, let me rephrase that mouthful. There is currently no WYSIWYG software available where you can design and format your Kindle book. Simple things like complex custom text wrapping are not possible. BUT! All of the basics are easily available.

It always comes back to paragraph styles

Here’s a definition: A paragraph style is a collection of settings which control the formatting of a paragraph which can be applied with a keyboard shortcut or click of the mouse. This style allows you to save your choices for all the options available in paragraph formatting in your design application—be that Word, Quark, or InDesign.

Now there are some real limitations and complications with Word (much like the old CorelDraw, Word tends to add non-standard code and proprietary terminology). Quark is reduced to a bad memory for most of us. So, I will be talking about assembling these styles in InDesign.

Excellent typography can be directly exported from InDesign as a Kindle book

It goes far beyond what is possible in a single blog posting to give you all of things necessary to produce this typography. I had to squeeze things to get this information into a 350-page book [which I just released called Writing In InDesign Second Edition]. But I can give you a list of things you can currently export directly from InDesign 5.5 in your KF8 Kindle book for the Kindle Fire. The Kindle plug-in for CS6 has not been released yet.

  • You can embed fonts: Before you get too excited, getting a license to use a font in a Kindle book is not easy and rarely found. But this problem will be solved soon. [As a font designer myself, this is great news.]
  • You are no longer limited to H1–H6 and p for paragraph styles: These seven options were the original limitation to HTML (the basic code of the Web). CSS enables an unlimited number of paragraph styles.
  • You can control all of the basics of CSS: fonts and font styles, point size, leading (line spacing), alignment, indents (left, right, and first line indent), and paragraph spacing (space before and after paragraphs).
  • Drop Caps: These work well but I haven’t pushed the envelope.
  • Character styles applied by hand: Automatic nested styles do not work as far as I can tell. Hopefully they will for the CS6 plug-in.
  • Numbered and bulleted lists: These work well, but I’ve had a lot of trouble with restarting the numbers in numbered lists.
  • Nested tables and merged cells: I haven’t tried nested tables yet but merged cells work fine. Tables work fairly well now. But gradients are dropped.

Supported by KF8 but not exportable from CS5.5:

  • Floating elements with boxed text, callouts,sidebars, and images with simple text wrapping: This has quite a way to go for ePUB export and the 5.5 Kindle plug-in does not support this at all.
  • Rounded corner for boxed elements and dropped shadows: This has quite a way to go for ePUB export and the 5.5 Kindle plug-in does not support this at all.
  • Background images on pages and text; multiple and repeated background images
  • Color gradients
  • Outline text
  • Scalable Vector Graphics [SVG]: These are not supported by InDesign or Dreamweaver as far as I know.

Hopefully many of these items will be greatly improved with the CS6 plug-in from Amazon. But there is much more. One of the best resources is Amazon’s Kindle Publishing Guidelines PDF. You can also go to their Website: https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/signin

KF8 offers typography as good or better than ePUB

As you can see there is a radical change for KF8, the new format to support the Kindle Fire. More than that, Amazon has promised to quickly support KF8 for their apps on the Mac, PC, iPad, Android, and so on. I am really looking forward to that as I do much of my reading on the Kindle app for the new iPad.

The only thing we know for sure is that ebooks will keep getting better—much more quickly than we thought possible. Try to remember how many ebooks you read five years ago.

David Bergsland‘sDavid Bergsland passion is typography, page layout, and book design. He’s written seven books published by others and helped with a few more. Since early in the millennium, he’s published dozens of books and booklets—his best-seller is self-published on-demand: Practical Font Design, now offered by FontLab in some of their bundles. He was on the original team with InDesign 1 and has written many books and booklets on how to use InDesign effectively. After beginning to write full-time in 2009, he has become even more enamored of the page layout tool, doing all of his writing within the app. David lives in southern Minnesota in a small town with his Pastor wife and near his daughter and four grandchildren.

Blog header photo by kodomut

tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Alan Drabke

    I use Times New Roman for my text font and Verdana for my chapter headings and highlights. Should I embed my fonts in the doc file? If yes, how do I minimize the weight of the file so Amazon does not charge me too much for delivery costs?

    • David Bergsland

      I’m not sure how to answer that. I do not know if you have a license to embed those fonts. It takes a special license. I do not use doc files at all, so I do not have the answer to that. I export my KF8 files from InDesign. But I would not embed TNRorV because I got them before those licenses even existed.

      I hope that helps.

  2. Michael W. Perry

    A couple of weeks ago I heard the program manager for InDesign CS6 speak at an ID user’s group in Seattle and he left me quite impressed. You should be able to view that presentation here:


    The new version fixes one of my primary gripes about the overabundance of ebook formats. That’s the fact that, past a certain point in the production process, you end up with multiple versions. Find a typo, and you have to fix that typo in every version. That’s particularly a pain when those versions are hand-coded HTML/CSS.

    ID CS6 allows you to have a master document whose content (text and graphics) control that in all the others. You can then have multiple layouts: one for print, one for iPad portrait, one of iPad landscape, one in KF8 for the Kindle Fire, and one for generic ePub. Change the text or a graphic on the master, and the corresponding item changes in all the other documents. That is impressive. You can even set down rules determining how text and graphics move when creating a new layout.

    I’ve already checked, and ID CS6 ePub export looks fine on my iPad, although some of the minor formatting does disappear. If Amazon can get us a KF8 plug-in, ID will, as David is pointing out, be an excellent way edit and publish digitally. That’s something we’ve needed for a long time in technology terms (i.e two or three years).

    As for the value of typography, keep in mind that new technology goes through stages. Early microcomputer users (mid-seventies) were amazed that they could own a computer, although those computers did almost nothing useful. Later people found happiness in computers that could do useful things, i.e. word processing in spreadsheets. Then a command line interface became passe, and a GUI became necessary. Every few years, the technology had to get better to retain users.

    It’s the same with digital books. When they first came to devices like the Palms in the late nineties, people were amazed to see a simple text book on their gadget. But as time has passed, people expect more and more. They want to see books with more complicated layouts (the reason for iBooks Author). And soon they’ll want even basic novels to look good and varied. (No more ‘one font fits all books’ abomination.) If you can’t deliver that, you’ll lose readers.

    Seattle is where Adobe develops ID. If you live near here, our ID users group is trying to get someone from Adobe to talk about ePub export in ID on the evening of June 12. Details will be posted here:


    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books. Seattle

    • David Bergsland

      I wish I could join you, Michael. It’s too far to commute from southern Minnesota. I too am excited about the master document concept. I haven’t written about it or really seriously looked at it because of the continuing necessity of rewriting everything for the different versions.

      I am finishing an major update to “Writing In InDesign Second Edition” because the portions on oldstyle figures, small caps, fraction, ligatures, and so on were eliminated because the 5.5 plug-in for KF8 export does not support the alternative OpenType glyphs at all. I had to rewrite the paragraphs and put illustrations in to show what the different options looked like in the print versions of the book.

      Now it appears that the book is so large that Amazon’s conversion of the MOBI upload is stripping out the embedded fonts and most of the CSS. I’m waiting for an answer from Amazon. I’m thinking I may have to re-release the book in two or three parts to get the file sizes small enough to maintain the formatting.

      Until some of those things are fixed, massive rewrites will still be required for much of my stuff.

      But as you say, it is certainly much better than it was last year. Next year will be even better. What is clear is that InDesign is pushing the envelope, riding into the new frontier aggressively.

      It should be fun to watch…

  3. Karl

    I’m afraid I got a belly laugh out of Bergsland’s first sentence:
    “One of the largest problems for both the reader and the book designer when dealing with Kindle books has been the extremely limited typography available.”

    Seriously, Mr. B., I defy you to find one ordinary reader out of a thousand who considers the limited typography to be any sort of a problem with the Kindle at all. I defy you to find one out of a hundred who’s even aware that the Kindle has limited typography.

    Most readers just want to read. They may have some vague expectation that the text of chapter titles should be bigger than body text, but beyond that they aren’t likely to care about or even notice the typography unless it starts getting illegible.

    I’m sure more typography options will be fun for book designers. But even for “complex discussions of specific procedures,” it’s not a necessity, or a major problem.

    • David Bergsland

      For novels and simple, all-type Kindle books you are correct. But for non-fiction and books which require complex formatting the typographic limitations makes those books very difficult to read. And the problem is not solved yet.

      I just finished an upgrade to “Writing In InDesign” and exported a KF8 book. It looked really good in Kindle Previewer, but when I uploaded it Amazon converted it in such a way that all my embedded fonts and most of my CSS was stripped out. I suspect it was because the MOBI file was too large. It started at 22.8 MB and was stripped down to 6.8 MB. I’m going to right that fight next week.

      • Karl

        The vast bulk of non fiction books are as much all-text as novels. On rare occasion they might require tables, indented passages, and other simple formatting variations. Maybe I’m missing something, but the only cases I can think of where you would *really* need fancy typography is in books with mathematical formulae, and maybe books about using page layout applications.

        For that sort of thing, typographic options will be great, but it’s hardly a “largest problem” kind of thing.

        • David Bergsland

          I suppose I’m aware of the issue because I write book about using page layout applications, and font design, and things like that. But believe me, it’s a large issue.

          It is true that better typography has a subconscious effect on your readers. But, it is a strong influence.

        • Mel Corbett

          I think you’re forgetting about text books. I’m going back to college in the fall and I would be ecstatic if I could get my text books on an ereader instead of having to lug them around. They have images, side bars, etc.

          • David Bergsland

            Excellent point, Mel! I forget that what I am writing are basically retail versions of textbooks.

        • Joel Friedlander

          I don’t think it’s a matter of “all-text” or not, the real problems in conversion come from the wide range of formatting used in print books that appear to be troublesome to reproduce for ereaders. And that’s exactly where new software that can do a better job of maintaining or converting those formats in an intelligent way is going to make a huge difference.

    • Nick

      Since book designers’ job is to facilitate, you are indeed not supposed to remark anything. In other words, good book design is transparent to eyes, remarkable to mind.

      It’s quite funny web designers are referring to “the form of a book”, a collection of essays from penguin’s book designer back in the sixties while we just don’t know this book exists… And we should obviously be the first concerned. Why are they referring to it? Because it is all about readability, hierarchy, rhythm, etc.
      Thus, the job of book designers is user-centric by nature, they are providing with a better reading experience. The less you feel the book was designed, the better the reading experience may be since the book designer has imposed perfect rhythm, used whitespace accordingly, and created slight visual hints which help readers guess what the hierarchy of content is.
      To sum things up, typography is the sound basis of written/displayed content ; the less you can do, the worst experience it is. Small typographical differences such as line heights or indents, proportions and (pseudo) grid system layout make a big difference. Check the latest post from iOS app iAwriter on smashing magazine to see how typography is important. As long as we can’t finely tune anything typography, we won’t be able to provide with a good reading experience. It’s as if a carpenter could not use a hammer to do his job.

      So yeah, people don’t care. So what? They are not supposed to care. But claiming “it’s not a necessity is pure ignorance”. Do you think book designers just stuff pages for the fun of it? If there had not been book designers, guys who did their job for reading’s sake, guys the main audience don’t even consider as useful, nobody would have actually loved books.

      Nick, some reader who just turned infuriated after reading your comment which sounds like some arrogant buddy giving artisans the middle finger…

      • David Bergsland

        Hear, hear; but Karl is correct also. However, the fact that they don’t care puts them in the position of being more easy influenced because they are not aware of what is being done to their reading experience.

    • Philip TAYLOR

      Karl wrote : “I defy you to find one ordinary reader out of a thousand who considers the limited typography to be any sort of a problem with the Kindle at all”. I have no idea whether or not I am “ordinary”, or whether I am 1 in a thousand or 1 in a milliard, but I can tell you that this Christmas I looked at a Kindle Fire for the first time, with a view to perhaps getting one in order to read books in bed (books such as Frederick Forsyth’s works, for example) and rejected it out of hand once I had seen the “typography” that it supports (scare quotes because it doesn’t really even deserve to be called that). No hyphenation, so every now and then the space of the line becomes excessive, heavily over-leaded, and a measure far too narrow to be of any use. I compared it with a well-designed PDF on the same device and there was no comparison : the PDF quietly whispered “design” and “typography”, the native Kindle format just shrieked “awful, avoid me like the plague”.

      • David Bergsland

        I must agree. Kindle’s abilities are really bad and falling behind. A cole days ago I uploaded an ePUB3 with embedded fonts to Nook, Kobo, Scribd, and Page Foundry with no problem. For Kindle I still haven’t found anything better than what we haf with the CS6 Export To Kindle plug-in.

  4. Turndog Millionaire

    wow, so much of that is foreign to me :)

    I do plan on getting my head round the entire process over the summer, though (to an extent). I think this will be a great resource for me

    Thanks for the tips

    Matthew (Turndog Millionaire)

    • David Bergsland

      It looks more anymore like our best hope is the new plug-in promised for InDesign CS6. I’m really looking forward to the day when this will become routine. That time has not arrived yet, but it’s surely coming—very soon.

  5. Michael N. Marcus

    This is encouraging, but there is more to the e-book business than Kindles.

    I love my own Kindle Fire, but strangely I sell many more e-books on the Apple iBookStore than on Amazon.com, and don’t want to go thru elaborate preparation for two very different formats — or pay a high price for someone else to do it.

    I initially hated e-books because of the design limitations I have (and the freedom that readers have to mess up a design), but now I am pleased to take advantage of color and hyperlinks, and maybe animation and sound in the future.

    It took a while for the 4-track vs 8-track vs cassette audiotape war, Beta vs. VHS videotape war, SelectaVision vs. LaserDisc video disc war, 5-3/4 vs 3-1/2-inch floppy disc war, DivX vs DVD war and HD-DVD vs Blu-ray war to be settled. And let’s not forget AC vs DC, SuperAudio vs DVD-Audio, and the Elcaset.

    Sooner or later we’ll probably have one e-book format, and I hope that happens very soon.

    Michael N. Marcus


    e-book coming very soon: 499 Essential Publishing Tips for a Penny Apiece. https://www.silversandsbooks.com/booksaboutpublishing/499selfpublishingtips.html

    • David Bergsland

      I agree, Marcus. My situation is that I sell better than twice the ebooks in Kindle. So, I thought I’d go with KDP this time. I’m interested to see what happens to iBook sales when I can release that version in late July.

      I format for all would be good. But that hasn’t happened in print yet, so I don’t have much hope for ePUB either. I still need one PDF of Lulu and a different (more limited) version for Createspace.

      I suspect the different versioning is the price we have to pay for self-publishing on-demand.



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